Eight years ago, in our book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, we shared with readers the correlations between higher inequality and higher rates of mental illness. Since then, other pieces of the inequality-and-mental-health jigsaw puzzle have been falling into place — and quite rapidly.
A path-breaking paper by Sheri Johnson and her colleagues, for instance, shows that a number of mental illnesses and personality disorders at least partly reflect responses to issues of social dominance and subordination, involving the brain’s “dominance behavioural system.”
Externalizing disorders, mania proneness, and narcissistic traits seem to be related to heightened dominance motivation and inflated self-perceptions of power. In contrast, the research relates anxiety and depression to subordination and submissiveness, as well as a desire to avoid subordination.
During her research Johnson seems to have regarded social status hierarchies as if they did not differ much from one society to another. But other research papers now suggest that depression, schizophrenia, narcissism, and psychotic symptoms all more commonly appear in more unequal societies. The implication: Greater inequality makes issues of dominance and subordination a more important part of the social reality we confront.